Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Men in the Mirror

[This post started out as a rewrite of the Nerra, a 3rd edition monster which, like so many of the monsters from that era, contained a few good ideas scattered like oases among a desert of pointless rules and numbers. It kind of grew in the telling.]

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They look a bit like everyone, which is another way of saying that they don't really look like anyone; walking blurs, like people seen in smeared mirrors, or through distorted glass. Touch them and your hand will come away covered in tiny cuts, as though you'd just run your fingers over the surface of a broken mirror. When they speak, their voices sound like the harsh, discordant scratching of glass against glass.

Here's how you call them: build a square room, and cover every inch of the walls in mirrors. Stand in the middle of the room, and fill it with light. Look in every direction and you will see yourself, reflected to infinity, a vast phalanx of your own reflections stretching away as far as you can see. Wait long enough, and you'll see that something else is walking among those reflections, something which is not the reflection of anything that is in the room with you. Call out to them, and they will come. They will step out of the mirrors as though they were made of water instead of glass.

Here's how you talk to them: you must wear a mirrored mask that covers the whole of your face. How you see through it, or around it, is your problem: some people use periscopes, others contrive primitive one-way mirrors as best they can. When the mirror-men look at you, and speak to you, they must not see anything except their own blurred-mirror faces, reflected back at them. No other method is safe.

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If they see your face - if they see anyone's face - they will hunger for it. They will try to draw you into the mirrors from which they came. They will beg and plead and wheedle and promise in their horrible scratched-glass voices. They will say anything they can think of to get you to step into the mirrors with them. Finally they will use force, grabbing you with their lacerating broken-glass hands and dragging you in bodily behind them. If you enter the mirrors with them then you are lost; you will become a phantom, mad, starving, haunting the reflections in other people's mirrors until finally you wither away and die. No-one ever comes out. No-one except them.

So you don't do that. You don't let them see your face.

You can bargain with them. They can offer three services.

Here is their first service: they can spy for you. Let one step back into a mirror, then take that mirror down and hang it on another wall. The mirror-man will see everything that occurs in front of that mirror. Rehang it in your mirror-room and it will step out and tell you what it has seen.

Here is there second service: they can store for you. Hand one an object, and let it step back into a mirror, carrying the object with it. The object will now appear inside the mirror, a reflection without a source. Break the mirror and it is lost forever. Only by hanging it once again in a mirror-room and calling the mirror-men out of it can the object be retrieved.

Here is their third service: they can kill for you. Let one step back inside its mirror, and then hang the mirror in a place where you know your victim will be; and when the mirror-man sees their target they will step down from the mirror-frame, silent and gleaming, with razor-sharp knives made from mirror-shards in their hands. They can strangle with their lacerating fingers. They can exhale great clouds of ground glass dust with force enough to flay away flesh and skin. They feel no pity for innocence or youth or beauty, but they have one peculiarity, and it is this: they cannot bring themselves to kill the truly vain.

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For each of these three services, the mirror-men must be paid, in the only currency that mirrors truly desire: attention. The person who bargains with them must sit and gaze upon their own reflection for a length of time commensurate to the service rendered: for a day, or a week, or a month, or a year. For great tasks - multiple murders, for example - they may demand that you literally sit and stare at yourself until you go blind. (The blind are of no further use to them, and cannot enter into any subsequent bargains.) Payment is rendered after the fact, but it is unwise to attempt to cheat them. They can step out of any reflective surface, at any time, and they will drag the defaulter away to complete their service... on the other side of the mirror. That such a person can never return home afterwards is no concern of theirs.

(There are some wicked old magicians who live in houses where every reflective surface is forbidden. No polished metal, no glass, no still water except in darkened rooms. They are hiding from the mirror-men. Not so much as a bowl of wine is to be placed on a well-lit table, in case a shining arm reaches out of it to grab them by the throat.)

Some curious souls have asked them about their lives on the far side of the mirror. For such questioners, the mirror-men spin elaborate tales of shining glass cities, gleaming and windless oceans, radiant kings and queens. They tell their stories in stagy, rehearsed voices, like people practising speeches in front of mirrors. If the questioner expresses doubt, the mirror-men will be most offended. When, they will ask, has a mirror ever been known to lie?

What they neglect to mention is that, while mirrors tell the truth, they only ever tell it backwards.

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  • Mirror-Men: AC 15 (lightning reflexes), 2 HD, +4 to-hit, 2 mirror-shard knives (1d6+1/1d6+1), saves 12, morale 8, special attack: ground glass breath, special defence: spell reflection, looking-glass leap. They take double damage from crushing attacks. Anyone in skin-to-skin contact with them takes 1 damage per round from hundreds of tiny cuts.

Ground-glass Breath: Instead of making its normal attacks, a mirror-man can exhale a blast of ground glass into the face of someone within 10'. The target must save or take 1d8 damage and be blinded; a Cure Light Wounds spell cast on their eyes will heal the blindness, although not any other damage.

Spell Reflection: Any single-target spell cast on a mirror-man, whether beneficial or harmful, will automatically bounce back and affect the person who cast it, instead. Area-effect spells are not affected by this ability.

Looking-Glass Leap: A mirror-man may leap into any reflective surface large enough for it to physically dive into: a polished shield, a pool of still water, etc. It then 'inhabits' that object, and can leap back out of it at any time, cured of all wounds. It can also leap at will from one reflective object to another, provided the first is reflected in the second. (So a mirror-man inhabiting a polished shield could leap into a window-pane, instead, if the shield was reflected in the glass for even a single moment.) When fighting a mirror-man, smashing whatever shiny thing it just jumped out of should probably be your top priority. 

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15 comments:

  1. Might your own eyes count as reflective surfaces for the mirror-men to use? Might use that in my next couple of sessions. I like how they have a defined and non-mechanical way to summon and pay them: I like the idea of anyone with enough mirrors and time can call them up. Just don't show your face...

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    1. Well, as-written, they can only escape into a reflective surface big enough to dive into, so a human eye wouldn't be big enough. (A giant's eye might be a different story!) But if you wanted to go full horror-movie, then someone who'd really pissed them off might go to kiss someone and find silvery fingers reaching out of that person's eyes, trying to scratch their face off...

      And, yes, the fact that you don't need any special magic to call them is part of the point. However, I did very much assume a medieval-style setting in which assembling a room full of mirrors and a mirrored mask would be an extremely expensive undertaking... In a setting where mirrors are easily and cheaply available, you might want to impose more restrictions, or the world would be full of the damn things!

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  2. Well, that was an entertaining month reading your blog, on and off. I've greatly appreciated your style and am intrigued by what you've discovered about central Asia. My players have heard of a far-off place, Gleaming Samarkand, where golden towers reach the sky. But, that's about all I had. I'm thrilled by the resources you have provided here. Thank you!

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    1. Glad you've found it useful! I will return to the Central Asian stuff at some point. Good luck with your game!

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  3. Great stuff as always!
    My immediate thought I'd to use them as a trap, "the next room is completely covered in mirrors..." But it seems a tad unfair to the players if they have no clues/history to work with. Any thoughts on how to drop hints on how to interact with them?

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    1. I would have someone use the spy function against the PCs. There would be a new mirror in their room at the inn, and then it's gone. Maybe have them notice, just for a moment, 7 reflections in the mirror and 6 people in the room.

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    2. Baron Opal's suggestion is a good way of flagging up the idea that 'mirrors in this place are weird and possibly dangerous', but really - isn't a room being full of mirrors already a sign that something strange is going on? PCs that just sit and wait patiently while something odd and sinister walks out of their reflections towards them deserve everything they get!

      (And honestly, even if they do just sit and wait until the mirror men jump out of the mirrors, all they need to do to cut off their most dangerous abilities is smash the mirrors and/or douse the lights, neither of which exactly take enormous leaps of logic to think of. Without reflections to escape through or drag people into, they're basically just 2 HD monsters with a vulnerability to maces!)

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  4. I need to create some cool weirdness like this for my setting too. I love fascinating monsters far more than most people, but most of my own critters are still just trolls, animals, or pretty straightforward demons. I think I could make so much more out of a tar demon then just a black blob with acid damage. So much more potential in swarms of telepathically linked bug swarms from the Underworld or ancient psychic fish from the bottom of the ocean.Posts like this make me want to try much harder.

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    1. Hey, go for it! How about a tar demon which squirms inside and animates the bones of the (possibly prehistoric) creatures buried inside its tar pit? A fight with a tar-covered mammoth skeleton, so sticky that almost every weapon that strikes it gets wrenched from the wielder's grasp and stuck to its tar-covered bones, should be a pretty memorable one!

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  5. One thing I've done that has made other-planar critters more interesting is to have the summon monster spells be tied to a specific critter. This would be a good SM-II, 4th level, critter I would think.

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    1. I think the Call of Cthulhu approach of having separate spells needed to summon and bind each different creature is very good for creating a more low-fantasy or Swords-and-Sorcery tone. (It also helps with some of the problems that a too-versatile summon monster spell can create, although that's more of a D&D3-era problem!)

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  6. I was always bothered that 3.5's three types of nerra had names that sounded like they were almost palindromes. It seems to me that mirror-people should only have names that don't change when seen in a reflection.

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    1. "sounded almost like palindromes but weren't" I should have said.

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    2. I dunno... 'Kalareem', 'Sillit', and 'Varoot', right? Only Sillit is near-palindromic, and really you'd want not just palindromes, but palidromes that would look the same when reflected in mirrors. I guess 'tillit' would work if you didn't use an initial capital and wrote it completely without serifs...

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    3. "Nerra" and "Sillit" were the two, I think I was trying to mentally slide them over to "nerren" and "sillis". Hadn't occurred to me to take the letter reversal into account as well... Maybe a very blocky all caps font or something, and even then the number of decent-sounding names is going to be very limited. China Meiville's solution in "The Tain" is just mirrored writing, which is effective and eerie, but harder to use at a table because he doesn't have to explain how that actually sounds when spoken aloud (unless the mirror people communicate entirely by writing).

      I don't think it's actually an Asian myth, but Borges's story about the Fauna of Mirrors in his Book of Imaginary Beings could serve as a justification for including mirror people in Romantic Clockpunk Fantasy Central Asia. They're even revolutionaries of a mystical sort.

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